Coconut oil and other coconut derivatives have not enjoyed a healthy relationship with consumers especially those in the West. One of the main reasons for this is due to the coconut’s fat composition. Think of fat and the first thing that comes to your mind is an image of an overweight person. If you’re asked about food fat, you still think of something which is not so healthy. For comparison purposes, butter has 62% saturated fatty acids, while coconut oil has 86%. Saturated fats are considered less healthy than unsaturated fats, although recent scientific studies have shown that the former may not be as bad as initially thought of. These studies have also produced some interesting revelations about coconut oil.
First, we need to understand what fats are. This may get a bit technical, but bear with me; you’ll have a better understanding of what fats are and what they do:
1. Before we talk about fats, we need to drill down and look at how fatty acids
combine to become fats. A fatty acid is a long hydrocarbon chain capped by a
carboxyl group (COOH). Very simply, they are chains of carbon attached to each
other with hydrogen elements tied to many of them.
2. To make a normal fat, you take three fatty acids and bond them together with
glycerol to form a triglyceride.
During digestion, it’s the other way around; the body breaks down fats into fatty acids before they can be absorbed into the blood.
What are the types of fats? There are basically three types:
a. Unsaturated fats:
Liquid at room temperature, they are considered “good” fats because they can improve blood cholesterol levels, ease inflammation, stabilize heart rhythms, and play several other beneficial roles. Unsaturated fats are mainly found in foods from plants, such as vegetable oils, nuts, and seeds. They can then be divided into monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats.
b. Saturated fats:
Saturated fat is mainly found in animal foods, but a few plant foods are also high in saturated fats, such as coconut, coconut oil, palm oil, and palm kernel oil. They are solid at room temperature. In saturated fats, every carbon chain has hydrogen atoms (one carbon to two hydrogen atoms). In unsaturated fats, one (monounsaturated) or more (polyunsaturated) carbon chains are bonded to another carbon instead of a hydrogen atom.
c. Trans fats:
Trans fats are unsaturated fats made to look like saturated fats. Why on earth would you want to do that? Humans are trying to make a healthier version of saturated fat. Does it work? Unfortunately, no. You also incorporate the bad stuff associated with saturated fats into it. You can’t have your cake and eat it.
Why do we need fat? Too much fat in your diet is not good for you, but a totally fat-free diet would kill you! Bet you didn’t know that. Fats have several critical functions:
a. Fat stores energy and helps to regulate our body temperature.
b. Fat is found around our vital organs. They help support and protect them.
c. Fats are part of our cell membrane structure.
d. Our body uses fat to absorb vitamins A, D, E and K.
e. Fat helps in regulating hormones and controls basic processes such as metabolism.
Sort of a love-hate relationship, don’t you think so?
Coconut oil is higher in saturated fat than other plant oils. However, it is less harmful than partially hydrogenated oil, which is high in trans fats. Here are some other very interesting information about coconut oil:
a. It is cholesterol-free. And it helps raise HDL (the good) cholesterol (we would need another topic solely on cholesterol to discuss this).
b. Coconut oil doesn’t contain saturated fats as you would find in cheese or steaks. No, they contain Medium Chain Triglycerides, which are fatty acids of, of course, medium length. They act like carbohydrates rather than fat, going straight to the liver where they are used as a quick source of energy.
c. Lauric acid, which can kill harmful bacteria, viruses, and fungi, forms 50% of fatty acids found in coconut oil.
Based on the premise that coconut oil is loaded with saturated fats, it doesn’t look good for the ever-versatile coconut. But if you dig deeper into the facts of fats, coconuts may not be as harmful as touted and can even be beneficial to you. More scientific evidence is needed before we can conclusively say that coconut fat, which comprises mainly saturated fat, will definitively give you heart disease. One more thing, you can’t beat the flavor of coconuts.